(CNN) — Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump make an unlikely pair. For Trump and his conservative base, Carter’s presidency was defined by American decline. During the 2016 election, Carter said that Trump’s campaign had “tapped a waiting reservoir… of racism.”
And yet in an interview with The New York Times, Carter now says that Trump has been treated worse by the media than any president before — and that he would be happy to go to North Korea to help the White House negotiate with Kim Jong Un. What alternate reality is this?
I suspect two things are going on here. First, the 93-year-old Carter is thinking about his own legacy. He might have had a miserable record as president, but post-presidency he’s become a force for international peace and development — and by offering to go to North Korea, he’s informing Trump and the American public of the sterling work done by The Carter Center, an organization he established to improve lives by advancing democracy and resolving conflicts. Don’t forget Carter’s visit to North Korea in 1994 that facilitated a short-lived nuclear deal with the US.
But he isn’t just looking for work. Carter is consciously or subconsciously reminding us of his unusual status in American politics. He has more in common with Trump than you might first think — or at least less in common with the Democratic establishment than might be apparent.
In some regards, Carter was the Trump of the 1976 presidential election. He was a businessman, a peanut farmer and, as a former governor of Georgia, an outsider in a Washington where many dismissed the Deep South as backward and reactionary.
Carter’s pitch as president was very, very different to Trump’s: He pledged never to tell a lie and offered a technocratic, moderate brand of liberalism that tried to pull the country together after years of Vietnam and Watergate. Trump’s divide and rule rhetoric, by contrast, has been compared to Richard Nixon’s.
Four years in the White House and a post-presidential effort to be as useful as possible recast Carter as some sort of Democratic grandfather figure. In reality, he often departed from the objectives of the American left. Carter rejected the radical national health insurance program favored by liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy. He wanted to increase the defense budget. He opposed federal financing of abortion and talked openly about his relationship with Jesus. Trump, too, has broken with his party’s orthodoxy, on everything from free trade to the Iraq War.
In many regards, Carter is a progressive — particularly on race — but for a sense of the cultural fissures between him and the modern Democrats, consider what he said in The New York Times interview.
On NFL players who won’t kneel for the National Anthem: “I think they ought to find a different way to object.” On tearing down Confederate statues: “That’s a hard one for me … I have never looked upon the carvings on Stone Mountain or the statues as being racist in their intent. But I can understand African-Americans’ aversion to them, and I sympathize.” Carter’s nuanced statements will sound to some like a faint echo from a lost age of American politics, when liberals and conservatives were temperate in their language and didn’t rush to seize the low or high ground of the culture war.
Finally, Carter, has never had much time for ego, be it from Democrats or Republicans. Readers can infer from the interview that he thinks Obama promised more than he delivered, and he says that he voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. It’s Carter’s pride that has long insulated him from hero worshipping whomever happens to be the Democratic leader at that moment. He’s usually only concerned with his own presidency, and the accusation that he either wasn’t a very good president or an insufficiently reforming one probably stings.
If Trump is under fire, Carter knows exactly how that feels. He’s spent some of his career taking attacks from similar groups of people: Hollywood, the media, even the Democratic Party. When Carter sought re-election in 1980, he was opposed not only by Ronald Reagan, the eventual winner, but a third-party ticket headed by congressman John B. Anderson, who enjoyed the star-studded backing of, among others, Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall.
If Trump is smart, he’ll welcome Carter’s comments and accept any help he offers. When it comes to the North Korean problem, a miracle would sure be welcome.